Do we really need the moon

Life on the moon - future vision or future fiction

The last time a person set foot on the moon was 50 years ago. How can we imagine the environment that the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission found there?

Klaus Slenzka: The special thing is that the moondust is very fine and extremely sharp-edged. During the Apollo missions, the zippers on the spacesuits were broken after being used twice. This is of course a big problem for life there.

Doesn't sound like a habitable planet ...

The moon consists of 40 percent oxygen. If we could get that oxygen, at least we'd have something to breathe.

And how do we get the oxygen?

In addition to other methods (pyrolysis, methane reduction, etc.), research is currently being carried out on a method using hydrogen reduction, i.e. the splitting of chemical compounds using high temperatures and hydrogen. If you use this method on the moon, the moon rocks have to be heated to approx. 1200 degrees and the substances released have to be bound. 1200 degrees are still moderate. Other methods require 1600, even over 2000 degrees Celsius. We also need hydrogen. With these ingredients we can generate water and split it again into the chemical components oxygen and hydrogen by means of electrolysis. This is how we get oxygen. The ESA is currently working on this method. Our challenge is: We would have to bring the hydrogen with us from Earth. So the question is: how do we get it to the moon?

Are there resources on the moon that humans can use for life on the earth's satellite?

There are speculations that water exists on the moon. In the huge craters, in the eternal darkness, there could be water ice. And that brings us to the next problem: darkness, temperatures close to 0 degrees Kelvin, i.e. around minus 270 degrees Celcius. What machines would work under these conditions to work with the water ice? And where does the drive energy come from? These questions need to be clarified. We still have a huge technical challenge ahead of us. That will surely take another decade or two. 

Are there other ways to get oxygen?

We in the Life Sciences department naturally look at what biology has to offer. We use special bacteria, blue algae and green algae, which, in simple terms, can eat and split the metal oxides on the moon. This is how we get oxygen. NASA has already managed to split titanium-iron oxides into titanium-iron compounds and oxygen by means of extremophilic microorganisms, that is, microorganisms that adapt to extreme conditions. This procedure is called "biological in-situ resource utilization", i.e. the use of the conditions, the biological substances, on site. Here, too, we have to consider that we need specific bioreactors on the moon to produce oxygen. This in turn requires the transport of building materials. Here, too, we have to ask ourselves where the energy comes from. But it is possible.

And then do the astronauts create a vegetable garden for self-sufficiency?

Unfortunately, that's not that easy. We know that the sharp-edged moondust destroys the root hairs. This must be prevented. Here in the laboratory we use samples that are modeled on real moon dust and have managed to transform the dust into a soil on which we can grow plants. To do this, we put our so-called communities (communities) of bacteria and green algae together with the moon dust, these grow around the sharp particles and we can generate a soil on which higher plants can grow.

Without water there's no life. How do we get the coveted material?

That will depend on how much hydrogen we can transport to the moon or possibly extract there. I assume that we will have to transport most of the hydrogen to the moon and recycle almost 100% of it. We need supplies. Closing the loop is the big challenge. Science still has a lot to do.

What else is research in the Life Sciences department?

We are very far in the field of 3D bioprinting. With 3D bioprinting, biocompatible implants are obtained from human tissue such as stem cells or cartilage tissue. This is absolutely a future market in the field of regenerative medicine and also an important prerequisite for carrying out explorations to the moon and Mars.

How real is it that we will soon be able to live permanently on the moon?

It won't work with “soon”. To do this, we still have to master too many, mainly technical challenges, such as the generation of artificial gravity. But one day it will definitely be more than science fiction.

More about the moon:

“I think it is very likely that a European will also stand on the moon.” - Interview with ex-ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter

The next people on the moon: Artemis follows Apollo